Most people like Hollywood love stories that have happy endings. Some recent films even express the hope that love and family life can exist beyond death. That is a message most people today want to believe is true. Yet, ironically, many families today are dysfunctional. As President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “The family is falling apart. Not only in America, but now across the world.”1 In the United States, as well as many other countries now, one-third of all babies are born outside of marriage, and over half of all new marriages will probably end in divorce. No wonder Hollywood is looking for happy endings.
Is eternal family joy possible, or is that just the stuff of dreamy movie plots and Church videos? Even some Latter-day Saint young people worry that their family dreams won’t come true. One returned missionary said he’d seen so many family disasters, he didn’t dare get married unless someone could guarantee that his family would not fail.
The Restoration is a light of hope in this dark world. Not only does our Church offer the clearest vision about family history but also about future eternal families. These doctrines then shed a unique light on our present, everyday family ties. With a nod to Charles Dickens, let’s consider all three perspectives—Family Future, Family Past, and Family Present.
Modern studies show that the public feels a widespread hunger for heaven—and family life in heaven. Many people still believe in life after death and in the eternal nature of love and the hope for heavenly reunion with their families. Yet, these non-LDS researchers report, most churches today offer little response to this deep yearning—with one major exception: “the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” which offers the most complete “understanding of life after death” available in today’s world.2 What a discovery! Most people long for eternal families, and the Restoration fulfills that longing better than any other teachings.
I have interviewed many people whose earlier mistakes cost them their temple blessings, and now they want to return. I often ask, “What motivates your desire for full Church fellowship?” Most answers are similar to that of a man who worked as a lonely sheepherder after his wrong choices separated him from his family. He would sit alone looking into his campfire each night, thinking about his wife and his children. He would say to himself over and over, “I want to be with my family eternally more than I want anything else.” That powerful vision of his Family Future gave him the courage and strength to repent and come back.
No church has a greater commitment to family history than we do. We pursue family roots and records partly to know our ancestors but also to provide temple ordinances that build eternal bonds across the generations. Our understanding of family history also extends back to our pre-earth life, showing that our individual spirits are only one generation away from Him who is the literal Father of our spirit. Thus we pray to Him as “Heavenly Father,” and we call each other “brother” and “sister.” He sent us to earth to develop through demanding experience the personal qualities we need to live forever with Him. Then the Atonement makes it possible for us, if we are faithful, to return to be eternally “at one” with Him and with our mortal families.
As we sing in “I Am a Child of God,”3 our earthly home is an extension in both purpose and pattern of our pre-earth home—and it prepares us for our eternal home. This “great plan of happiness” is all about family life. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “The fulness of eternal salvation is a family affair. … The gospel plan originated in the council of an eternal family, it is implemented through our earthly families, and has its destiny in our eternal families.”4
Our understanding of the earthly family is like the second act in a three-act play. Act 1 was our pre-earth life in the family of God, act 2 is our current mortality, and act 3 is our eternal sealing after death. Without the perspective gained from acts 1 and 3, the second act can seem too hard or too confusing. But with that vision, act 2 has infinite meaning.
I’ve been asked by non-LDS people, “How do you explain the amazing confidence in marriage and family life your Church members have, even in this age of family decline?” As one Japanese family scholar asked after being around some Brigham Young University students, “What is the secret behind all the shining eyes?” I told him the “secret” was not in these students’ sociology but in their theology. Family life is a case where our doctrine influences our behavior far more than talking about behavior influences our behavior.5
Those who lack eternity’s perspective on time can easily yield to the pessimism of believing that “there’s no tomorrow.” King Macbeth’s chilling speech upon hearing of Lady Macbeth’s death captures the cynical attitude of those who view act 2 as the entire play: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / … / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”6
Thank heaven there is tomorrow. Because there is tomorrow, all our yesterdays have meaning and all our dreams have hope. We do not strut and fret for but an hour on life’s stage, and our candles go not out in the darkness called death. As the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.” Because of Family Future and Family Past, true love in Family Present is never wasted, and our sacrifices for the sake of eternal love signify everything.
It isn’t easy to translate these principles into a tidy, daily reality. Family life is by its nature a continual struggle between the ideal and the real. But if your home often knows warm feelings of love and laughter, if your family is trying—even most of the time—to have family prayer, home evening, and honestly shared gospel experiences, you are learning the pattern for happiness. We know each other at our worst, and our best, in the closeness of family life. At our worst, we might wonder how we can keep living with each other. But in the best moments, we can’t really imagine living without each other.
For some, your family life is very torn. In the musical Les Miserables, Fantine sings of her childhood dream “that love would never die.” Then she cries, “But the tigers come at night … [and] tear your [dreams] apart.”7 I have seen plenty of tigers tear at people’s dreams.
I also know some valiant Church members who have absorbed the pain of their own family trauma rather than passing it on to others. They “renounce [family] war and proclaim [family] peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers” (D&C 98:16). They are a great force for good, acting as saviors on Mount Zion for their families with examples of love and forgiveness. Emulating Jesus, they often give sweet commitment in exchange for bitterness. How I admire them.
Whatever our trials, we all feel the longing to belong in eternal unity with a loving family. That longing is a real source of power. The mental image of his wife helped Viktor Frankl survive a Nazi concentration camp. In his agony, he kept thinking of his wife’s image, “more luminous than the sun.” As a result, he “grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”8 Frankl often quoted the statement “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”9 His “why” was the vision of one day reuniting with his family. Full of such hope, he could live with the awful “how” of imprisonment.
Now, what must you do to make your family dreams become a reality? It has been said: “Vision without a task is only a dream. A task without a vision is but drudgery. But vision with a task is a dream fulfilled.”10 Some people believe in the vision of an eternal family, but they aren’t willing to pay the price to fulfill the dream. Without the heavy lifting—the work—of preparation and obedience, even a celestial family vision is just dreaming.
You young adults are in some crucial years of making your family dreams come true. You will be confronted this year, maybe this week, with some frank realities that will force you to decide how much your dream really matters to you.
Imagine with me a young man I’ll call Jared. Jared’s parents tried to teach him the gospel but felt they hadn’t reached him. He was attending college far from his home, where he could be his own person and do his own thing. He was tired of seminary and what he called “cheesy Church kids.” Jared loved his freedom. He got involved with the wrong kind of movies, dancing, and girls. Soon he began hanging out with a cute non-LDS girl named Stephanie. Their relationship became very physical, which Jared found exciting.
One night Jared and Stephanie were moving toward real intimacy. She was very playful and willing. Jared gulped, “What if you get pregnant?” She said, “I’m on the pill. And if that doesn’t work, it’s no big deal. I know how to get an abortion.”
“An abortion?” Jared asked. “Wait a minute.” It hit him that they were now talking, even if only hypothetically, about a possible baby—his own child. He felt confused and uncomfortable. He saw a link he’d somehow missed before between sexuality and children—what the scriptures call “posterity.” He also felt hurt to sense how much intimate experience Stephanie had had.
“Listen,” he said. “Sex is really about getting married and having kids. And that’s all about our relationship with God. I don’t like this, Stephanie. I know where the spirits of babies come from, and I know what sex is supposed to mean. Sorry, but I’m out of here.”
Stephanie was shocked. She asked him not to push religion on her. Jared didn’t think he’d said anything about the Church. He was just expressing what he believed about life. He took her home, then drove off, fighting back tears, trying to settle down and clear his head.
After an hour of aimless driving, Jared called his cousin, a married returned missionary attending his college. When they met, Jared told him he’d just broken things off with Stephanie. Then Jared became very serious. “You know what—I need to date active LDS girls who really care about the whole family thing the same way I do. Why couldn’t I see that before?”
We give our lives, even an hour at a time, for what we believe, what we value, and whom we love. Jared realized that he was about to give a big chunk of his life, his procreative power of posterity, to a senseless, even evil cause. Then he awoke to claim the testimony he didn’t know he had. His heart was telling him things his mind did not yet clearly know.11
He was like Amulek, who said, “I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know; therefore I went on rebelling against God” (Alma 10:6). What then got Amulek’s attention was a vision from an angel. What got Jared’s attention was a vision from evil.
Imagine, like a beautiful vision, being with the man or woman you love, dressed in white, kneeling at a holy altar in a temple. Then imagine the two of you, like Adam and Eve, holding each other and walking back together into God’s presence. Will you remember this picture with enough power to live for it and work for it, this week and next month? It is a vision worth living for, working for, a day at a time, an hour at a time.
Too many Latter-day Saints today somehow believe they can stand with one hand touching the walls of the temple while the other hand fondles the unclean things of the world. We can’t do that. As Alma said, “Touch not their unclean things” (Alma 5:57). I plead with you, put both hands on the temple. Put your arms around the temple, and hang on for dear life to your family dream. If you don’t, the tigers will come at night and tear your dreams apart.
For example, as you date and hang out, even when you feel there is a growing foundation of love in a relationship, show your profound respect for that love—and for the doctrines about eternal love and family life—by bridling your passions. Don’t be deceived by the false idea that anything short of the sex act itself is okay. That is a lie, not only because one step overpoweringly leads to another, but because even touching another person’s body with sexual intent is part of the intimacy that is kept holy by the sanctuary of chastity. Please also beware of unnatural sexual acts that are just as immoral, if not worse, than traditional fornication or adultery. If for any reason you think you may have dashed your own hopes by a past mistake, I testify of the power of Christ’s Atonement when coupled with honest repentance.
Returning to our vision of family life, I remember a bright fall afternoon some years ago when I went fishing with my seven-year-old son, Mark. As I splashed up the shallow stream in my waders, I carried him on my back. He held his feet above the water and hugged me tight, laughing in my ear when I would stumble on the rocks; he said he hoped we’d fall into the water.
We stopped at one spot to fish. I soon looked up at the clear blue sky, almost tasting the crisp fall air. I saw early snow on a distant mountain peak. I drank in the color of autumn leaves in the backlighting of the sun. I saw Mark downstream, skipping rocks on the water. The sun caught the pure whiteness of his blond hair, and his agile form stood out against the shadows of the wooded background.
I felt a sudden rush of feeling that I suppose only a father or mother can know. My heart reached out to touch him as I realized: That is my son, my posterity, and I am his dad. He is filled with a child’s love. I am responsible to God for my conduct as his father. He and I are sealed together, if we are faithful. He is the fruit of the deep love I feel for his mother. The constancy of her daily life is teaching him the way of truth and light. Thank God for such a child. What miracles are worked by the laws of nature and of nature’s God! In that moment, I felt in harmony with everything I saw. It was a witness to me of the Lord’s love.
I promise you that you can experience the fulfillment of your desire for eternal love, if you really want it, so long as you don’t want anything else more. I pray that you will do the work required to fulfill your family dream. The longing of the heart for this fulness is a central vision of the gospel. It is also a source of great power, especially on those cloudy days, or years, when your dreams seem impossible. Even when love wounds you, that’s because love matters so much. The deep hurt is the mirror image of the deep joy that still awaits you.
Your longing to belong forever to a loving family comes from God, and He has promised its fulfillment, if you are faithful: “For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness” (Ps. 107:9). I know His promise is sure.
What are the differences between the three dimensions of family Elder Hafen describes: Family Past, Family Present, and Family Future? How does knowing about Family Past and Family Future make Family Present more meaningful?
Have one person hold a statue or picture of a temple firmly in one hand. Let another person hold onto the temple with one hand and then try to get some “worldly” object like money or candy that has been placed just out of reach. Why is it a problem to have one hand on the temple and the other hand touching the unclean things of the world? Share your testimony of the blessings that come from the temple.
Discuss the statement “Vision without a task is only a dream. A task without a vision is but drudgery. But vision with a task is a dream fulfilled. “What family dreams could be coupled with vision to make dreams a reality?